By Irah, May 21 2015 02:45AM
Many years ago, during the tail end of my doctoral studies, I was participating in a supervision group. We were discussing how to provide meaningful psychological services to patients who were bedbound and isolated as a result. The supervisor of the group asked us what our worst fear would be if we found ourselves in their position. One psychologist responded, “To be alone and to potentially die alone.” This led to a discussion about the many reasons such a fate wouldn’t befall her. She recognized that she was newly married and proactive in seeking out and maintaining friendships in her life. We then explored how to help our patients become more connected to those around them. We did not explore the uncomfortable truth that some things are not in our direct control and the psychological process that ensues, but that is a topic for another time.
Human contact, family ties and social connection are all critical to our well-being. Their presence is integral to psychological functioning and general happiness. This does not exclude, however, the importance of the alternative, being alone with oneself. What I learn time and again in my work as a psychologist is that in the quiet of solitude, my patients find parts of themselves that are not just hurt and in need of healing, but are a source of strength, love, humility, a passion for meaning in life and a myriad of personal gems that are only accessed through silence.
What I remember most about the discussion in the supervision group is my interest in understanding the experience of my patients prior to attempting to change their lifestyle. Who were they in their isolation? Our discussion ended there, but for me, understanding the importance of solitude in fostering rich interpersonal connections became paramount. I wanted to start where my patients were, to help them enrich their own needs and manifest their own desires and goals. They were in a seemingly emotionally torturous position and yet as I tolerated the silence of their own making, I saw the good in it.
One of the many things that I have learned in my work and in my life is that we run. When there’s an intolerable emotion or sensation we quickly attempt to change it. This manifests in thinking about a more pleasant subject, changing the topic of conversation, watching a show, listening to music, picking up the phone, focusing on those around us. In short, there are countless ways that we attempt to take ourselves out of the situation that we are in when the moment is unpleasant. The psychologist in my example worked tirelessly to help her patient increase social contact because imagining her own solitude was intolerable. She was still able to help her patient since being connected to others fosters emotional health, but she skipped a step. If there is solitude, use it. If there is not, make time for it to see who you are separate from the cloaks and dressings of life.
Years later, I joined a geriatric psychology practice and for years was exposed to the solitude of many people. For some it felt excruciating. For others it was filled with deeply gratifying moments such as sitting with appreciation for their families or having the space to bask in the beauty of the light as it entered their bedroom window. Aloneness was not something to run from. It brought tranquility and room for personal development. The solitude brought quiet and the quiet bred introspection and that introspection supported a level of awareness not typically accessed when our social lives overflow and our schedules are packed to the brim. Together we neared the core of things rather than remaining lost in the external. It was the silence that enabled them to share themselves genuinely. They were not the sum of their activities, plans and relationships. They had access to their unembellished selves. They were then able to share themselves with others and create more meaningful relationships with greater depth and awareness.
From a holistic perspective, we need not get lost in silence and introspection in much the same we need not lose ourselves in our activities and relationships. When there is space for aloneness and solitude, which meditation facilitates, we simply have access to more of ourselves. During the process of self exploration through meditation we begin to notice emotions and sensations that we were previously unaware of. We can then address them proactively, assertively. We become aware of our bodies and where we hold tension, pain and digestive distress. Most recently, I was working with a patient who suffered with debilitating anxiety. She was also struggling with gastrointestinal discomfort. We worked together on a weekly basis. Meditation was implemented into her weekly routine. Her food lifestyle was examined as food is often used to self-medicate during emotional unease. We monitored her food intake in relation to anxiety symptoms. Sure enough, when anxiety was highest, she was eating those comfort foods that we all know and love, which offer little to no nutritional benefit. The relationship was recognized, the behaviors changed and the gastrointestinal distress disappeared as anxiety also reduced. The interconnectedness of psychological functioning, meditative stillness and our food lifestyle deserves our attention.
For me, what I find most eye opening as I continue to grow psychologically, develop my own meditation practice and fine-tune my lifestyle, is that once I’m able to connect to my own emotions, sensations and the silence in solitude, I begin to feel a deeper, more intimate connection with those around me and the world at large. This is not an intellectual experience. It is a sensation born from a deep universal vulnerability that exists within all of us and it begins in the silent moment.